Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Voice - Insight and Confirmation

Understanding “Kol” - the voice - as an apprehension rather than a sensory experience, Rambam in MN 2:33 explains –

It is clear to me that at the gathering at Mount Sinai, not everything that reached Moshe also reached all Israel. Speech was addressed to Moshe alone: for this reason in the Asseret Hadibrot the second person singular is used, [it would have been plural if addressed to all - DG], and he went to the foot of the mountain and communicated to the people what he heard.

In other words the difference between the apprehension of Moshe and that of the people is that they had a similar experience he was having, but while he was able to make sense of that experience and translate it into words, their experience was no more than an intellectual insight into Moshe’s experience.

The problem with understanding Kol as a prophetic apprehension by a mass of people is how to square it away with Rambam’s understanding of prophecy as a natural result of advanced metaphysical and theological speculation. How can one explain that a large group, men, women and children all were made into intellectual giants in a few days? In fact, Rambam discusses the whole Sinai experience in that context. In the chapter that lays out his basic theory on prophecy (MN2:32) he ends the discussion by stating –

As to the revelation on Mount Sinai, all saw the great fire, and heard the fearful thundering, that caused such an extraordinary terror; but only those of them who were duly qualified were prophetically inspired, each one according to his capacities.

Apparently, a person present at Sinai could experience Kol without having reached the level of prophecy. The people were taught certain necessary theological truths that allowed them to grasp intellectually and assimilate into their minds the existence of a true divine inspiration. Rambam does not define further what that apprehension was and considers that to be one of the great mysteries about that experience “The true reality of that apprehension and its modality are quite hidden from us”. Along the same lines, Rabbeinu Avraham, Rambam’s son in his Pirush on Chumash sees the three preparatory days as days of teaching theology and philosophy to the masses. He wonders at what such a crash course could be composed of to be successful. He attributes the lack of reports and details about the content of those teachings in the Torah, to their great depth and therefore secrecy. This Kol experience was unique. It never recurred since Sinai nor will it ever recur. It however confirmed to those present that Moshe was legitimate and that the reports he was bringing to them were authentic.

As we know, Rambam holds that the existence of God is empirically provable. The arguments for the existence of God are therefore something one can be taught and apparently that was one of the matters that was already accepted by the Jewish people who left Egypt. That is how I understand the answer that God gave to Moshe when he asked Him on what basis the people would accept him as their leader. He told him to tell them that he is a messenger of the same God they were taught about by their parents, the unique transcendental non-contingent entity. However, as God’s essence cannot be understood, it remained an abstract and intellectual argument. It is difficult for humans, who live in a material world, to really assimilate the existence of a transcendental God. Kol was able to change that and it confirmed the existence of God who was only known intellectually. That experience confirmed that God is transcendent and really “exists”. It is similar to a scientist who is able to confirm a scientific theory with a successful experiment. (See Devarim 4:12 and on).

The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone… When the people heard this voice, their soul left them; and in this voice, they perceived the first two commandments. (MN 2:33)

The convergence of the intellectual apprehension of the existence of God with the Kol experience legitimized the Kol experience and made it believable and acceptable to all. Kol worked because it confirmed something already known intellectually. Moshe who was much more knowledgeable could understand the other eight commandments while the people could only “hear” what was known to them independently – God’s existence, transcendence and uniqueness.

It must, however, be noticed that the people did not understand the voice in the same degree as Moses did. I will point out to you this important fact, and show you that it was a matter of tradition with the nation, and well known by our Sages. (ibid)

Of course, Rambam points out that even that apprehension of God was each according to his level of intellectual development. Moshe the greatest thinker of his time had an incomparably deeper understanding than the rest of the people.

This Kol experience coupled with the natural displays of thunder and lightening impressed the people to such a point that they agreed to submit to the yoke of heaven – the Torah that Moshe was about to give them.

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